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Fabric from closed Dan River textile mill finds new life as ‘slow fashion’ dresses

Sep 15, 2023

By rehabilitating empty mill buildings, Danville has preserved the legacy of the textile giant that defined the city for decades. But the buildings aren’t the only physical evidence that Dan River Mills left behind.

Earlier this year, fashion designer Dani Des Roches found a roll of Dan River Mills deadstock fabric in the attic of River District Artisans, a homegoods store on Danville’s Main Street.

Des Roches, who lives just across the state line from Danville in Caswell County, North Carolina, bought the colorfully striped fabric. The material made 12 dresses, which have sold across the country, just like products from Dan River Mills’ heyday.

The dresses were designed by Des Roches and made in a factory in Asheville, North Carolina.

“It’s truly a USA-made dress from beginning to end,” Des Roches said.

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Des Roches, who owns the slow fashion brand Picnicwear, prioritizes sustainability and longevity in her work.

Slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion, which refers to clothes that are mass-produced inexpensively, often in factories where employees are not paid a living wage or protected by fair labor practices, in response to short-lived trends.

And because they are made and priced cheaply, fast fashion clothing items don’t last very long, incentivizing consumers to throw them away and buy more, Des Roches said.

“The goal of these brands is to produce as much as they can at the cheapest price point they can to encourage the consumer to just buy, buy, buy,” she said. “They’re basically training the consumer to have this insatiable appetite for more and more and more all the time.”

Slow fashion, on the other hand, describes an approach to fashion that is more environmentally conscious and time consuming, resulting in higher-quality items.

“I’m really passionate about domestic manufacturing and bringing clothing back to this slow process that it once was,” Des Roches said. “It’s been difficult, though, because we’re just so far beyond that.”

Des Roches spent 10 years in the fast-fashion industry, designing clothes for brands like Urban Outfitters and Express after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“We were producing thousands and thousands of units per style,” she said. “Your measure of success as a designer was determined by how large of an order the brand would place on your design.”

She said she remembers receiving praise when 40,000 units of a sweater that she designed were ordered.

“I remember thinking, why do 40,000 people need that one sweater?” Des Roches said. “It just really started to disgust me, to be honest. I didn’t really want to be a part of it any more.”

In 2018, Des Roches left her job and started doing freelance fashion work. When the pandemic hit and her freelance work dried up, Des Roches started her own brand, Picnicwear.

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“I had a vintage beach towel and I decided to make a hat out of it,” she said. “It kind of expanded from there.”

* * *

Des Roches had always been interested in vintage fabrics and upcycling — turning by-products or used material into something new and usually higher-quality.

Her parents were small-business owners in Vancouver, Canada, where she grew up, she said. Her father owned a thrift store in the 1970s, before she was born, she said. Her mother would alter clothing, putting pintucks on the shoulders of men’s silk shirts to make them wearable for women, to sell at the store.

“That was early upcycling, and it was really popular at the time,” Des Roches said. “I grew up in that environment, and I was always super interested in fashion. I loved thrifting, altering my own clothes and making my own clothes from scratch.”

Even while she was working in fast fashion, Des Roches said she made a personal pledge to buy clothes secondhand or from small businesses. And Picnicwear finally allowed her to make things that she wanted, using processes she could feel good about, she said.

But there’s a reason fast fashion is more widespread than slow fashion.

“Slow fashion is not the most lucrative business, let’s be honest, especially compared to working for a full-time brand and getting a paycheck every other week,” Des Roches said. “Now my income is contingent on selling the things I make.”

As the pandemic wore on, Des Roches and her husband, Jason, found that they could no longer afford to live in Brooklyn. They moved to North Carolina and now live in the house that her husband’s stepfather grew up in.

This puts her about 15 minutes south of Danville and its rich textile history.

“My favorite era is the ’60s and ’70s, and Dan River Fabrics was such a huge base for the textile industry at that time,” Des Roches said.

She was excited to “unearth what remained” from the mill’s fabric production, she said, but it’s been harder to find than she expected.

“Last year on Facebook Marketplace, I saw that somebody was selling the remnants of sheeting fabric from Dan River Fabrics,” Des Roches said.

She bought the fabric from the seller, a woman whose mother had worked for Dan River Mills.

“I actually haven’t done anything with [the fabric] yet,” Des Roches said. “I have been planning on doing a program of lightweight breezy pants where each panel is patched with a different fabric.”

That’s something that should be coming by early next year, she said. But other than that, Des Roches has “been disappointed, because I haven’t found much [Dan River Mills fabric].”

Dan River Mills fabric is “really hard to find” today if you’re looking to buy it, said Sarita Gusler, manager for River District Artisans, where Des Roches found the material.

“I don’t know of anybody that has any Dan River fabric, but I’m sure some folks do,” Gusler said. “I remember going to the Dan River fabric store with my grandmother and buying fabric when I was a child. I would imagine that today, some people have it but never made a product with it.”

After the mill closed in 2006, there was a tag sale for leftover fabric, and whatever didn’t sell was likely given away, said the historians at the Danville Historical Society.

The historical society itself has a collection of bolts of Dan River Mills fabric, but they aren’t for sale.

The roll of fabric that Des Roches found in the River District Artisans attic belonged to the Arc of Southside, a local chapter of the Arc of Virginia, Gusler said. The organization works to ensure that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are included in their communities.

River District Artisans is part of the Arc of Southside and employs many people with disabilities in a quilting studio in the back of the homegoods store. The quilts made there are sold in the store, along with items made by around 80 independent artisans.

“The fabric has been in the possession of the Arc of Southside for probably about 15 years, but we don’t know the age of the fabric exactly,” Gusler said.

It is sheeting fabric, Gusler said, which is a loosely woven fabric that usually comes in wide widths so that it can be used for bedsheets, as the name suggests. It’s 50% cotton and 50% polyester, and the loose weave means that it is lightweight and breathable.

And it was still in great condition, Gusler said, despite being in storage for years. “It was wrapped in plastic, so it was pristine,” she said.

* * *

Des Roches first heard about River District Artisans when she met an employee of the store at an estate sale in Yanceyville, North Carolina, and they discussed their mutual love for vintage clothing, she said.

It took about six months for Des Roches to get around to visiting the store, she said, but when she did, she was “totally smitten.”

“I got to see their incredible quilting machinery, their embroidery machine, and we were just feeding off each other’s excitement,” she said. “They understood my excitement about all this and decided to take me up to the attic to show me a lot of the vintage stuff they had up there.”

That’s where Des Roches spotted the huge roll of deadstock fabric.

“As a business that’s trying to be slow and sustainable and use only existing materials, it’s really hard to grow when you can only find limited quantities of each fabric,” she said. “So when I saw this roll that had many, many yards on it, I was so excited.”

Normally, Des Roches makes one-of-a-kind products, or very small batches of the same item, because of the limited quantities of material. “I saw this as an opportunity to create multiples,” she said.

She worked with a living-wage factory in Asheville called Sew Co to produce the dresses, which were made with 3 yards of fabric each.

That’s a lot of material for one dress, Des Roches said, and Sew Co typically requires a designer to produce a minimum of 50 units per design, she said.

“It’s really hard for me to reach 50, even though in the scope of production, 50 is a very, very low minimum,” Des Roches said. “They were really wonderful and were open to doing less than that with me.”

Des Roches made 12 dresses total, and about half of them have sold so far.

She calls it the Tutti Frutti Reversible Babydoll Dress. It features pink, red, yellow, green, blue, orange and purple stripes and has a v-neck in the front and back, as well as a belt that can be tied in either the front or back.

“Because this is a living-wage factory and a really slow process, the dresses are not cheap,” she said. Each one is priced at $298 on Picnicwear’s website.

Des Roches said River District Artisans gave her a good price for the fabric, but “since the cost I pay for materials vastly ranges, I have to average everything out,” she said. “I had to average the costs of all the fabrics I used for the dress version when I determined my pricing structure.”

Fast fashion has not only impacted the way people shop, but also the way they think about clothing prices, Des Roches said.

“People look at a garment that’s done in a slower, more sustainable way, and they think it’s so expensive,” she said. “It’s because they’re used to consuming so much all the time. When really, if you just bought one really well-made one that you’ll like for many years instead of buying five shirts throughout the course of six months, the costs are actually lower.”

The roll of fabric that created the Tutti Frutti dress also helped create a relationship between Des Roches and River District Artisans.

“Because it’s very hard to find multiple yards of the same fabric, I ended up working with them on creating something that we, in the upcycling world, call reroll fabric,” Des Roches said.

Reroll fabric is a roll of material created out of scrap textiles that are stitched together. Des Roches is sending her leftover pieces of fabric to the River District Artisans quilting studio, where they turn it into a patchwork material.

She used the same Tutti Frutti dress design to make another dress out of the patchwork fabric, which is now listed on the Picnicwear website.

Unlike fast fashion clothing, these dresses don’t cater to any specific trend. They’re timeless pieces that Des Roches hopes people will enjoy for many years, she said.

“My hope is that when a customer purchases from me, they’re purchasing because the piece speaks to them on an emotional level,” she said. “I hope Picnicwear represents their ethical values of course, but also their personal style.”

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at [email protected]. More by Grace Mamon

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